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The very first thing I learned about cooking is that it’s all about the spices. Spices make food flavorful. And almost everywhere other than South India, onion and garlic are the main flavorants added to food. Think about it. From pasta to salsa, Thanksgiving to Chinese New Year, where would we be without onions or garlic?

Tamil Brahmins though, like to do everything the hard way. For my orthodox grandmothers, onions and garlic were on the no-no list, along with meat. Many contradictory theories abound as to the reason for this traditional ban on onions and garlic. Some say it’s because onions and garlic are smelly. Some say that they are potent aphrodisiacs that those on spiritual paths should avoid. Whatever the reason, many Indians avoid onions and garlic on holy days, and the orthodox avoid them all the time.

So the grandmothers had to find some other way to flavor their food. Here’s their secret–the basic building blocks of an Indian pantry. These aren’t just for making Indian food–many of these spices can be used to boost the flavor of any food, especially vegetables.

Parents, take note: if you want to get your kids to eat vegetables, mustard seeds and urad dal are your new best friends.

MUSTARD SEED

Scientific Name: Brassica Nigra/ B. Juncea

Health Benefits: omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium, protein, niacin and dietary fiber. Seriously! Check out the amazing nutritional profile of these little seeds.

How to Use: Heat a tablespoon of oil for 1 to 2 minutes, then add 1-2 teaspoons of mustard seeds. When they splutter and start popping, add urad dal.

URAD DAL (BLACK GRAM, unhusked and split, aka WHITE GRAM)

Scientific Name: Vigna mungo

Health Benefits: protein, fiber, calcium, iron.

How to Use: There are many, many ways to use this lentil. For now, add a teaspoon or two to your oil after the mustard seeds have stopped popping. It’s a quick shot of protein into your dish, and provides some nice texture to soft vegetables.

ASAFOETIDA/ HING

Scientific NameFerula assafoetida

Health Benefits: Wikipedia says that it helps with digestion, asthma, bronchitis and maybe even the flu! I’ve mainly thought of it as Indian MSG. While it has a strong pungent smell in its raw form, it loses that smell when toasted in oil, and seems to just boost the natural flavor of food.

How to Use: Add a very small amount (start with a 1/4 tsp) to oil, either before or after adding mustard seeds and urad dal. This was the grandmothers’ substitute for onion and garlic, an all natural flavor enhancer. The Wikipedia article confirmed my observations!

RED CHILI (dried), whole and powdered

Scientific Name: Capsicum

Health Benefits: beta-carotene/pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, anti-inflammatory. I was surprised to discover that chilis heat up all sorts of goodness in our bodies, from soothing inflammation in the joints to slowing down the effects of cholesterol.

How to Use: Start with adding one or two dried red chilis to oil, either before or after adding mustard seeds and urad dal. Don’t actually eat them, unless you like the thrill of it! They will release their oils as they roast, and you can discard the husks at the end.

The whole red chilis, roasted in oil, will only add a very delicate and mild amount of heat to food. Beginners can start just with those. More advanced lovers of heat can also add red chili powder directly to the food while it is cooking. Do NOT confuse this with paprika, which has a beautiful red color, but no real heat. Different chili powders will have different levels of heat, so use sparingly according to your taste.

TURMERIC

Scientific NameCurcuma longa

Health Benefits: Last, but by no means least, turmeric is an all around superstar. If you pick just one spice to use daily, let this be the one! First of all, it is a natural preservative. That means that anything you add turmeric to, will last a lot longer in the fridge. The more turmeric you add, the longer it will last. In India, it’s also used as a poultice to heal cuts, as an anti-aging beauty aid on skin, and is present at every auspicious occasion, from births to weddings. The NIH currently has over 60 clinical trials underway studying the various benefits of curcumin (the substance responsible for the biological activity of turmeric) on diseases such as pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, psoriasis and Alzheimer’s.

How to Use: Add a few teaspoons of turmeric to anything you are cooking. Don’t add too much, or you will be able to taste its distinct, slightly bitter flavor. In small quantities, it will disappear into your food, give it a golden glow, keep it fresh, and provide a whole host of health benefits that scientists are just starting to study.

We’ll stop here for today. In addition to all their other benefits, spices also make kitchen cabinets look organized and pretty! I bought a dozen Libbey 4.5 oz glass jars on Amazon.com to use for our wedding. They turned out to be perfect spice jars. They hold a surprising amount, are completely airtight, and wide enough for spoons. Amazon looks to be out of stock right now, but Target has them online. They’re a great value, and good looking as well.

Next up: a Summer Pasta Salad with veggies sauteed in the above spices!

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